Full-sized images removed from other website

There’s been some progress over the past few days in resolving the appropriation of images from the FindAGrave.com website by an upstart website called PeopleLegacy.

Billing itself as “one of the largest online repositories for cemetery and grave records from all available historical sources,” PeopleLegacy launched last week into a firestorm of public criticism for what clearly appears to have been wholesale appropriation of user-uploaded images and information from FindAGrave.com.

Full-sized copies of images from FindAGrave appeared on the PeopleLegacy website overwritten with a watermark from PeopleLegacy. The vast majority of the images are copyrighted images, with the copyright owned by individual contributors to FindAGrave. Many others, perhaps not copyright protected, were family photographs that had been uploaded to the FindAGrave site by individuals as well.

PeopleLegacy appropriated image

Not surprisingly, those who had uploaded to FindAGrave were outraged. On Facebook, elsewhere in social media, in emails, and even in comments to this blog, FindAGrave users wanted to know one thing: could this appropriation of their images be legal? And, if not, what could be done about it?1

As reported here last Friday, there were problems in trying to contact or deal with the PeopleLegacy website. There is no site owner identified on the website; it’s apparently hosted or its owner claims to be located in Cyprus, but the associated phone number is out of Florida.2 Registration information for the website only identified the registrar, and not the hosting company, and it’s generally the hosting company with which a takedown notice needs to be filed under the Digital Millennium copyright act (DMCA).

The opinion of The Legal Genealogist then and now is that it sure looked to be a copyright violation as to every contributor of original photos to FindAGrave as well as the compilation copyright of FindAGrave.com, now an Ancestry property.

The official statement from Ancestry at the time was: “Ancestry recently learned about PeopleLegacy.com, which appears to improperly feature user-submitted copyrighted material that was sourced on Ancestry’s FindAGrave website. We take this issue seriously and will take the necessary action.” The same statement appeared in the News and Announcements section of the FindAGrave.com website with a note, “When more information becomes available, we will post it here on the FindAGrave News blog.”3

Nothing more has been said, but there has been some action as PeopleLegacy appears to be responding to pressure from Ancestry.

Over the past few days, the full-sized copyrighted images – clearly appropriated from the FindAGrave.com website – have been removed from PeopleLegacy.com. A search on that website now does produce thumbnail-sized copies of the FindAGrave.com images, still bearing the PeopleLegacy watermark, when searching for an individual grave (as with my own grandfather’s grave, above). All other copies of the images now appear to be gone from the PeopleLegacy site.

This is a start –- not a complete solution –- to the appropriation of user images. Even the thumbnail-sized copies, as unauthorized copies of copyrighted images, should not appear on the PeopleLegacy site. Unlike the use of thumbnails on sites like Google Image Search or Bing Image Search, these thumbnails do not lead back to the originals; they’ve simply been appropriated by one website from another for its own use.

Removing all of the appropriated images, regardless of size, unless explicit permission is granted by the uploader is the only legally and ethically acceptable outcome.

Now… What about the factual information that is also clearly lifted from the FindAGrave.com website? That’s a tougher situation, because facts simply cannot be copyrighted. Only the way the facts are presented -– if there is some creative spark in the organization or presentation or just the way they been written up -– can be copyrighted.4

It may seem — and may well be — ethically wrong to simply appropriate months and years of someone else’s work in assembling factual information to use it on your own website.5 It certainly violates every ethical norm in the genealogical community.6 But at least in the United States, there isn’t legal protection for purely factual information.

So don’t expect too much when it comes to anything other than the photos that have been appropriated here.

For the moment, there’s nothing more to be done by individuals whose photos and work have been appropriated by PeopleLegacy. It remains in Ancestry’s hands to protect the copyrights and user-contributed information of its own property, FindAGrave.com.

We’ll continue to monitor the situation and let you know if anything changes. For now, the right thing to do remains to let Ancestry’s legal team take the lead.

Stand by.


SOURCES

  1. See e.g. Dick Eastman, “No, Find-A-Grave Wasn’t Exactly ‘Hacked,’Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, posted 21 Sep 2018 (https://blog.eogn.com/ : accessed 24 Sep 2018), and the comments to that post.
  2. See the note at the end of Judy G. Russell, “America’s first daily,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 Sep 2018 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 24 Sep 2018).
  3. See “Taking action on improper use of material from Find A Grave,” Find A Grave News & Announcements, posted 21 Sep 2018 (https://news.findagrave.com/ : accessed 24 Sep 2018).
  4. See “FAQs: What Does Copyright Protect?,” Copyright.gov (https://www.copyright.gov/ : accessed 24 Sep 2018) (“Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed”).
  5. I do note some irony here since many FindAGrave contributors uploaded information they had appropriated from cemetery books produced at great effort and expense by genealogical societies…
  6. See e.g. Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others, National Genealogical Society (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ : accessed 24 Sep 2018) (“genealogists and family historians consistently … observe meticulously the legal rights of copyright owners, copying or distributing any part of their works only with their permission”).
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